Filmmaker magazine featured a guest column from Jennine Lanouette who has taught screenwriting and lectured on story structure and script analysis for over 20 years. I found this article interesting in large part because Jennine ends up pretty much where I have about screenplay structure:
It often seems to me that the independent film community is not entirely comfortable talking about screenwriting. Or perhaps more specifically story structure. This is not surprising considering a Hollywood Screenwriting Advice Industry has grown up over the past 20 years pushing a mono-minded model of story structure that a creative innovator could find stifling.
The truth is that the Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat, Syd Field Paradigm, or whatever is the structure template du jour, are all just variations on what any decent Screenwriting Fundamentals class would teach about our historically derived model of drama, generically referred to as Three-Act Structure. But the Screenwriting Industrial Complex does not deliver it to us as simply a beginning point that a creative person can noodle around with and push in new directions. Rather, the screenwriting advice givers drive home the message: “Stray from this model at your (commercial) peril!”
Independent film, however, exists, by definition, for the very purpose of straying from conventional models. This may explain the collective covering of the ears to shut out all that story structure noise. As a longtime teacher of screenwriting always looking to engage with others on this topic, I have to cover my ears sometimes, too. But something is lost when the only alternative to the noise is to avoid the issue altogether.
There’s no avoiding Three-Act Structure. It is the One-Point Perspective of screenwriting. Just as in drawing, you have two points on a horizon line and then a third vanishing point to create a sense of space, in filmed drama, you have a beginning, middle and end to orient the viewer in time.
However, within that three-part structure, there are infinite possibilities for what can be achieved. This is the Advanced Screenwriting class, where a healthy respect for the model handed down to us by centuries of dramatic innovators is combined with an acknowledgement that artistic evolution depends on continually seeking new ways to apply the old models. Hollywood used to be open to cultivating, or perhaps simply tolerating, such ambitious endeavors. But, considering that today’s Hollywood has sunk into a comic-book-franchise/based-on-a-true-story rut at the expense of original adult drama, I would like to suggest that the evolution of the art form is now the sole responsibility of independent filmmakers.
Indeed, there have been some beautiful examples of screenwriting innovation recently: the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost are two of my favorites (which I’ve written about on my website). Ironically, it was just as the Screenwriting Advice Industry was taking hold 20 years ago that Quentin Tarantino provided indie counter programming when he turned three-act structure on its head in Pulp Fiction (which I’ve often analyzed in my lecture classes). Using basic story structure principles, he created a structural system all his own. This is at the core of getting beyond the mono-minded model.
After years of studying story structure, here’s what I have concluded: It actually doesn’t matter which structural model you use as long as you have some kind of underlying structural system to your drama [emphasis added].
Longtime readers of the blog will recognize this common refrain: There is no right way to write a script. Every writer is different. Every story is different. Jennine takes the thing one step further:
You start with Three Act Structure and go from there. When you apply your structural system consistently throughout your story, the viewer will unconsciously derive security in knowing there is an underlying structure at work [emphasis added].
I think that’s right. When you go into the story and discover its own unique narrative form, as long as you nail the construction and are consistent throughout, a script reader will pick up on that and “derive security” in your intimate knowledge of the story and its structure.
You can go here to read the rest of Jennine’s column which focuses on independent storytelling as she posits an interesting “meditation on character, action and theme.” Plus you can learn more at her site.